After a visit from my son on Wednesday,Thursday and Friday,Saturday dawned cold and frosty so we decided it was time for a trip out. Not wanting to go very far we headed to Sudbury around 20 miles and 30 minutes away, to visit the birthplace of one of England’s greatest painters,Thomas Gainsborough . Throughout the 18th century, landscape painting was considered a rather lowly branch of art. However Gainsborough was innovative in often fusing these two genres within the same composition. Gainsborough was the first important British artist to consistently paint landscape too and it provided the ideal subject for his poetic vision.
While Gainsborough sold some of his landscapes, he found portraiture more lucrative. At the height of his career, from the 1760s onward, the demands for his portraits were such that he suffered from overwork. He was always an experimental artist though using a wide range of drawing or printmaking techniques. In his later years, Gainsborough expanded his subject matter with some mythological and ‘fancy’ pictures with a stronger narrative content. Gainsborough’s painting method was technically sound and his works have survived relatively well. It is his painting style, particularly his fluent brushwork, as well as his ‘naturalism’ that have been so admired by later generations.
In 1749, after his marriage to Margaret Burr and father’s death, he returned to his native town of Sudbury. He made a meagre living painting portraits of the local gentry and members of the professional classes. These early portraits were often rather stiff but demonstrated the artist’s flair for capturing a likeness and a personality. At the same time, he was also painting landscapes. While clearly inspired by the Suffolk countryside, they were only rarely views of actual places. Gainsborough’s early landscapes were imitative of 17th-century Dutch landscape painting, with their careful observation of nature and meticulous technique.
By 1752, Gainsborough had probably exhausted the circle of potential patrons around Sudbury and moved to the larger town of Ipswich, then a flourishing port. There, he had greater opportunities to develop as an artist, with more exacting clients.
In 1759, Gainsborough made a decisive move to Bath. As a rapidly growing spa town in the West Country, Bath became an important social centre for the wealthy and fashionable, where they consulted their doctors or had their portraits painted.
His talents were in demand by more cosmopolitan and aristocratic sitters than before, and his larger studio space enabled him to paint full-lengths on a grand scale. While in Bath, he continued to paint landscape and made sketching excursions in the surrounding countryside. These moved away from the Dutch influence of his earlier landscapes to become imaginary pastoral visions. The growing confidence of Gainsborough as a painter from the 1760s onwards resulted not only from more sophisticated patronage but also his knowledge of the work of other artists. While at Bath, largely for the first time, Gainsborough was able to see paintings by Van Dyck, Rubens and other Old Masters in the great collections at Wilton, Corsham Court or Longford Castle.
In 1768, the Royal Academy was established in London, giving artists an official position in society. Gainsborough was a founder member while his rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds, was its first President. This may have encouraged Gainsborough in his decision to move to the capital in 1774. The artist’s relationship with the Academy, however, was not easy and by 1783, he eventually stopped showing at its annual exhibitions.
In London, he resided in the west wing of Schomberg House on Pall Mall, where he held exhibitions at his studio. The portraits of his later years became more fanciful and graceful, often using thin paint applied in light, feathery strokes. The ‘Cottage Door’ subject was a recurrent theme, while he also developed new, more dramatic landscape subjects, particularly after his tour of the Lake District in 1783. In his last decade, Gainsborough started to broaden his range of subject matter with mythological or ‘fancy’ pictures. These were of great importance to the artist, who considered The Woodman (destroyed by fire in 1810) to be his finest work. Gainsborough died of cancer on 2 August 1788 and is buried in Kew Churchyard